Oxford Professor Emma Smith gave the latest Engaging with the Humanities talk on 6 June.
The economic roots of Shakespeare’s theatre
‘It has probably been one of literature’s great historic sleights of hand to suggest that it is somehow free of the market,’ said Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford. ‘But what we see of literature is filtered through all kinds of economic process and economic agents -- and none more than the theatre in Shakespeare’s England.’
Smith’s talk focused on the development of the theatre as an ‘industry’ in the sixteenth century and how this led to the emergence of Shakespeare ‘as probably one of the most valuable brands ever developed in the arts’.
Medieval travelling players
Plays, of course, predate the Elizabethan period by some time. They were typically performed by groups of travelling players who moved around the country, each with a very small number of plays in their repertoire. Audiences would often associate each group of players with a particular play, and would enjoy seeing it repeated every year or so. It was not, as Smith said, ‘a model of artistic organisation which encourages innovation; quite the opposite – it encourages things to stay the same.’
But in the second half of the sixteenth century, two important things happened that would set the scene for the disruption of this model. First, Elizabethan government and administration centralised in London, meaning that every nobleman worth his salt had to keep a London establishment. Secondly, the legal system – also based in London – exploded, to the extent that it is estimated that every Elizabethan citizen undertook an average of seven pieces of legal quarrel during their lifetime. Together with expanding trade, these factors meant that the population of London doubled over the course of the century – and again in the following fifty years. People had cash and were ‘in the market for entertainment of a different sort,’ explained Smith.
The first purpose-built theatres
The first theatre was built in London in 1567, followed by many more which sprung up just outside the city boundaries, noticeably on the south bank of the Thames. The London authorities were extremely suspicious of the new theatres, imagining that they would produce noise and nuisance, with crowds of dangerous people all ‘pumped up on theatrical entertainment … roar[ing] through the narrow streets of London causing chaos.’
Interestingly, Smith explained, ‘most of the people who go to the theatre [at the time] don’t tell us what they went to see.’ They do not seem to have been particularly discerning about choosing one play over another, ‘it is more that they are going because it is a Thursday or they are going because they are out on the Southbank generally.’ However, some of the business records of the theatre owners suggest that some plays were more popular than others, so there must have been some way in which people were choosing which plays to go and see.
Still, it seems to have been a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ model of theatrical organisation – the price of a ticket was the equivalent of two pints of beer – and that meant that the theatre owners needed lots and lots of people to come to every performance. They wanted frequent, repeat business – and that meant they needed lots of new plays.
Theatre goes up-market
The people who crammed into the theatres to see these new plays mostly stood in the yard, right in front of the stage. A smaller number of people sat in the more expensive seats round the edge: they paid more to be further away from the stage, having a more ‘refined or separated experience’. And Smith suggested that it was the ‘economic discovery that people were willing to pay more money in order to have a more separate or a more small-scale experience that starts to change how the theatre industry works.’
Theatre companies started to build indoor theatres – partly to extend the playing season (outdoor theatres were necessarily best suited to the summer months only), and partly to cater for the people who were willing to pay a lot more for an ‘intimate and boutique experience.’ In other words, the theatre went up-market.
Plays and playwrights
So what of the playwrights? Writing plays was an occupation that simply did not exist in Medieval times, but all of a sudden the development of the theatre created an enormous demand for new material. Handily, this demand coincided with the expansion of Oxford and Cambridge universities, so there was a glut of well-educated young men churning out plays that would be performed for very short runs. (Shakespeare was unusual in not having a university background.) ‘The theatre at this point has almost zero interest in revivals or old plays,’ said Smith. ‘It is often a great surprise to people that even plays which we now think of as classics of world literature probably had between seven and ten performances and that was it.’
But there did start to develop a spin-off industry around the printing of plays. Smith’s slide of a range of front covers showed how these publications became more sophisticated over time as publishers worked out what information people needed to make sense of a printed play and what was going to entice them to buy it. For example, early play texts do not include a list of characters. But, as Smith explained, ‘Publishers soon work out that is what audiences want, and so they provide them. And similarly they think about the kind of stage direction that readers need which might not have been part of the text of the play, and how they develop this format so that readers can enjoy it.’
In addition, some were clearly issued as what we would now call a tie-in to a particular performance. Romeo and Juliet, for example, was billed ‘as it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely by the right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon his servants.’ And some emphasised the appearance of a popular character: ‘The history of Henrie the fourth with … the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaffe.’ But, as Smith noted, ‘the name of the playwright doesn’t particularly seem to be one of the dominant commercial elements of theatre at this time.’
The first celebrity actors
However, some of the actors did become stars. Richard Burbage was particularly known for tragic roles: he was the first Hamlet, the first Macbeth and the first Othello. And Will Kemp the clown, was such a famous actor in Shakespeare’s Company that in some of the printed texts they used his name in place of the character’s name. Smith described finding evidence that actors were being paid for personal appearances, and the number of epitaphs written for Burbage’s death far exceeded those for the Queen (the wife of James I) who died at around the same time. ‘I think there are lots of ways of thinking actors were more important celebrities than playwrights in this period,’ she said. ‘We have seen an industry which needs plays and needs playwrights but perhaps because of that doesn’t really take their work particularly seriously, doesn’t give them a particular status.’
Smith concluded by observing that much writing about the Elizabethan theatre has tended to keep quiet about its commercial roots, ‘and feel ashamed of those beginnings, to feel that an art that has its roots in business and in economics can’t really be a true art. I think that is completely untrue. I think the art stands for itself, and it is really helpful for us and really interesting for us to think about the economics that underpin it.’